If it’s true that “it takes a village to raise a child” and you’re a child who dreams of an Olympic gold medal, Bekoji is the village you want to be from.
On Sunday, Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana won the women’s Olympic Marathon in an Olympic record 2:23:07 to become the fifth distance-running gold medalist from Bekoji, a town of about 17,000, following in the rapid footsteps of Derartu Tulu, Fatuma Roba, Kenenisa Bekele, and Tirunesh Dibaba.
“Fatuma is my hero,” said Gelana afterward, of the 1996 Olympic Marathon gold medalist. “I am extremely happy to share history with her.”
Sharing the podium with the 24-year-old Gelana were silver medalist Piscah Jeptoo of Kenya, who finished in 2:23:12, and surprise bronze medalist Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova of Russia, who followed in 2:23:29.
Kenyan co-favorites Mary Keitany and Edna Kiplagat both finished out of the medals, Keitany fourth in 2:23:56 and Kiplagat, the 2011 IAAF World Champion and 2010 ING New York City Marathon Champion, 20th in 2:27:52. Liliya Shobukhova of Russia, the second-fastest woman in history, was forced to drop out midway, unable to battle through a lingering hamstring injury.
Also dropping out was American Desiree Davila, for whom just getting to the starting line was a victory of sorts after fighting a hip-flexor injury for the past month. “I could tell early on that ‘it’s not going to happen today,’” said Davila, who made it around the 2.2-mile introductory loop before calling it a day.
Her USA teammates, Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, ran at the front of the lead pack in the early going, with Goucher in the official lead at 5K. By 25K they began to fall back, and although Flanagan made a brave solo bid for fourth place late in the race, she could not hold on, finishing 10th in 2:25:51 and collapsing to her hands and knees in exhaustion after crossing the line. Goucher, right behind, 11th in 2:26:07, helped her training partner to her feet and supported her as the two walked slowly away.
“The turns and the ups and downs were really hard,” said Flanagan, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist at 10,000 meters, of the tricky course. Nonetheless, she added, “I am capable of better.”
Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO of New York Road Runners, had words of praise and encouragement for the Americas. “Once again, the only thing certain about the marathon is that it’s 26.2 miles,” said Wittenberg. “It can bring even the best to their knees: Kiplagat, Keitany, and—literally—Shalane today. This was the strongest USA women’s team ever, and in some ways being so strong made it harder. Just over a decade ago, few were thinking about U.S. marathon medals, and this time we had three bona fide contenders come out of the Trials. Today may have been a smaller step forward for than we had hoped for, but it's still a step forward.”
An early downpour slowed the pace, allowing 27 women to still be within six seconds of the leader at the half, which Valeria Straneo of Italy went through in 1:13:13. Shortly afterward, Gelana took a spill at a crowded fluid station, slipping on the pavement and scraping her elbow. She bounced up quickly, retrieved the water bottle that slid from her grasp as she fell, and carried on.
But she had no complaints about the weather. “As soon as the rain started I said to myself, ‘Thank God,’” she said. “I love running in the rain. I have been doing that since I was a small child.”
By 30K, five women—Gelana, Jeptoo, Keitany, Kiplagat, and Mare Dibaba of Ethiopia—appeared to be vying for the medals. But soon thereafter Kiplagat and Dibaba began to fall back, replaced by Arkhipova, a former 3000-meter steeplechaser. When Keitany began to battle what was reportedly a stitch, she faded while the others hammered on. Not until the final meters did Gelana take control, to lead the closest 1-2-3 finish and the fastest final 2.195 kilometers in Olympic history. The best marks for place were set by the top eight finishers.
Although Gelana came into the race as one of the eight women with personal bests under 2:20, thanks to her 2:18:58 victory in the ABM Amro Rotterdam Marathon in April, she has never competed in a World Marathon Major before these Olympic Games. That is likely to change soon.
“Marathon is my life,” she said. “We Ethiopians think marathon is our national sport.”